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Review: Limehouse (Donmar Warehouse)

Roger Allam leads the cast of Steve Waters' new play about the formation of the Social Democratic Party

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

"The Labour party is fucked." It's a strong opening line for Steve Waters' self-evidently timely new play. A hot new political drama? A take-down of Corbyn?

Just a bit of history repeating. It's 1981, and under a divisive leader, an increasingly left-wing Labour party is fractious, failing to provide effective opposition to a Tory government run by a ruthless female prime minister. There are rumours of a split. Limehouse is a fictionalised account of the formation of the Social Democratic Party, when the 'Gang of Four' – Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen - hoped to win voters with a more moderate vision. It follows the few hours before they delivered the 'Limehouse Declaration' to the press, and the pressure is on, with a countdown on a great digital clock glowing ominously above an otherwise cosy, comfortably middle class home.

This done-up Docklands house belongs to Owen, played with floppy-fringe tossing, posh-toff bluster by Tom Goodman-Hill, a man driven by equal parts political passion and personal ambition. Waters turns his wife Debbie, a silky American with a skill for flattery, into a key player: she shapes his plans, makes sure the right wine's in, smooths fraying tempers. Behind every great man, there's a woman-shaped theatrical device… Still, Nathalie Armin is good as Debbie, and her benign manipulations make a welcome tone-change to the rumblings and grumblings of the four very British politicos.

Roger Allam gives a funny rendition of Roy Jenkins, lisping through his verbose oratory – but, like all the characters, he's also allowed his genuine hand-on-heart moment. Paul Chahidi reveals conviction squirreled away under both sarcasm and timidity as Bill Rodgers, while Debra Gillett is bright-eyed and no-nonsense as Shirley Williams, a strategic player who nonetheless deeply fears the damage they might do to Labour.

All the actors admirably convey the personal costs of this decision. But as a play, just one big chat in a kitchen, there's a lot of political-historical ground to cover to make sense of that cost (especially for those who didn't witness it first time round, perhaps). Polly Findlay directs at a brisk clip, but focusing on wavering moderates can mean that even the most barnstorming speeches aren't always that thrilling.

To ramp up the tension, Waters presents us with a vision of a will-they-won't-they divided group, with much sniping. Yet it's hard to get fired up about lost potential if they lack conviction from the off. The play implausibly exaggerates this: one minute they're completely failing to agree on even the first sentence of the declaration, the next they've bashed the whole thing out in a single off-the-cuff conversation.

Limehouse gear-shifts at the end with a direct address to the audience from Armin (without the American accent), acknowledging the SDP's failure but suggesting that we once again need to ask 'what if?' It's an interesting move, but feels like a slightly unearned attempt to connect with the present moment, in a play that - despite all the obvious initial parallels - is actually largely bedded into its own very specific historical moment.

Limehouse runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 15 April.